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Flour power: mixing pleasure with business.


The scene is all Currier and Ives. Afire crackling in the fireplace is rekindled every so often by a lazy arm that lifts the den window and reaches for another sassafras log from the woodpile outside. A "Beware of the Dog" sign, down by the Evans' gate, alerts visitors to a bouncy retriever fully capable of licking a stranger to death. Dad, on a diet again, stretches in his La-Z-Boy and makes plans for lunch, even though it's only 10 a.m. Mom, in an apron, offers steamy muffins to her children (carefully avoiding Pop) who are gathered around a game table.

Meet the Bob Evans family. Downon the farm.

For more than 40 years, theOhio entrepreneur Bob Evans has used sausage to bring home the bacon to his wife, Jewell, and their six children. But Bob retired from his 150-plus-restaurant operation on January 1, and Jewell and the kids have launched their own food business. Theirs is different, however. Hold the biscuits, gravy, cottage fries, and over-easy eggs. Jewell and company are into health foods: whole-wheat flour, corn meal, and ten-grain cereal. True grits, and totally delicious.

"We had the perfect place tobuild a mill, and we were able to get the stones," Jewell expalins. "We had kids who said, 'Let's do it,' and we had a product we thought everybody in the world should have. We decided that at a time when people are reaching out for better nutrition, we'd offer it to them. That's what inspired us, and we're still excited about it. Of course, the food revolution is really too slow for us. We'd like to see things move faster. But people change their habits slowly."

Although this is the second timeJewell has helped build a family food business from scratch, the circumstances are as different as the products. Back in 1946, when Bob Evans was a veteran just home from the war, the couple were interested only in farming their small spread outside Gallipolis, Ohio, overseeing their ever-expanding family, and running a 12-stool truck stop on teh edge of town. The problem was sausage--or lack of it. Truckers heading south often stopped for a hearty breakfast of eggs, mush, and sausage. When Bob couldn't find sausage that met his and the truckers' standards, he decided to do some experimenting in his test kitchen back on the farm.

"It took me two or three years to getmy formula figured out,c Bob recalls. "Luckily, Jewell is an excellent cook. We had fun getting started, doing jsut what we pleased. It wasn't much of a risk because we didn't have any money to lose, anyway."

Forty years later, Bov Evans Farms,Inc., is a multimillion-dollar company, the modest family farm now encompasses 2,500 acres of rolling Ohio pastureland, and the children are scattered from Canada to Florida. Still, Jewell's interest in food is intact, and so is her zeal for a new challenge. "It's been more relaxed the second time around because, you see, our children are all grown and out of the nest," she says. "It's a lot of fun to be involved, to know what's happening in the business world, and to pick up on new trends and new ideas. Once again I'm doing something interesting, but this time with my children."

Added motivation for the new venturecame when Bob suffered a heart attack in 1980 and underwent open-heart surgery twice. After he recuperated, the couple traveled to the Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Monica, California, where they spent 26 days in training with such notables as Buddy Hackett and George McGovern. When they weren't studying food preparation, trekking along the beach, or panting through rigorous fintenss routines, they were being lectured, as Jewell explains, "about everything you put into your mouth." They returned to the farm lean and determined. The basement treadmill, rowing machine, trampoline, stationary bike, and sauna wre put into regular u se, and Jewell began mixing experimental batches of fiber-rich cereal.

"Actually, our daughter Debbiehelped us become interested in the textured cereal," Jewell says. "Hers was six- or seven-grain, and it was wonderful. We started adding our own ingredients, like sesame and flax, and it became ten-grain, which is an absolute original. Now we take favorite family recipes, remove some of the condiments, add the ten-grain mix, and we get something very, very special."

A thoroughly modern milling operationwas the logical next step. She proposed the idea to her sons Stan and Steve and her daughter Robbin, all of whom lived within driving distance of the family farm. The response was quick and enthusiastic. Jewel Evans Family Foods, or at least the kernel of the idea, began to germinate.

"Our whole thrust was to find thefinest possible way to mill whole grain," recalls Steve, now charged with the marketing and research responsibilities of the business. "Sure, we wanted an authentic and romantic setting with everything true to form, but there was a method and a purpose to the whole system. It all had to work toward turning out the finished product we wanted."

Although the Evanses had a lot tolearn about the new venture, they were quick to locate a network of willing teachers ready to share their knowledge. Farmers suggested millers, and millers offered names of Amish craftsmen expert in duplicating exquisite but functional buildings typical of another era. The construction of the Evans Family Mill began in October 1982, much to the pleasure of locals, who watched the project from picnic blankets spread on swelling pastures around the site. No plans were necessary; the workmen merely consulted an artist's sketch from time to time and continued to hand-chisel 16"x16? giant support beams and to secure mortise joints and knee braces with hand-carved wooden pegs. When they were done nine months later, the three-story, white-oak structure with teh shake-shingle roof looked comfortably a part of the stark, rural skyline.

But, as Steve insists, the aestheticsof the mill wer secondary. This was to be the operational hub of the new family business, and that requirement called for a special mix of old and new equipment--electric motors that would maintain a speed comparable to the old water-powered mills, and rare millstones that predated the American Revolution. The modern machinery was easily obtained. But the historic stones?

"We heard about an elderlyman in Connecticut who had recently closed his mill and had simply locked the door behind him," Robbin recalls. "He owned six sets of rare old French burr millstones, each weighing about 3,400 pounds. He wouldn't sell them to anyone who wanted them for landscape decorations or for a museum. He wanted his stones to be used to grind graiin." Jewell and her children flew to Connecticut and spent a day with the old miller. He approved of their dream to launch an authentic milling business and agred to let his beloved stones be the heart of it. The deal was closed.

"The stones were a real find, sortof the foundation of the whole operation," Steve says. "They're set in their original, polished, wooden tongue-and-groove hoop enclosure. We refinished all the woodwork--mostly maple---and steam cleaned everything. So far, everything has worked well, knock on wood...and we've got plenty of that."

The amount of business determineshow many stones are grinding at any given time. Many old mills were built around one or two sets of stones; the Evanses' operation has six, with room to grow to nine. Grain is processed only after an order is received, and Jewell asks for seven days to fulfill a customer request. In order to accommodate a quick turnout, the mill's staff of three often works into theevening. The seetting is cool (in keeping with tradition, the mill is unheated), incredibly clean, and comfortable. Depending on the day and the volume of orders stacked on the antique miller's desk, the stones may be grinding whole-wheat flour, corn meal, or pancake flour. Fred Vollborn, manger of the farm, oversees the equipment, and Jewell is a frequent visitor. Without trying, she creates a we're-all-in-this-together mood and doesn't hesitate to doff her preppy blue blazer and help package the products that bear her name and picture. Members of her "team" not only have a hand in the milling of the grains, but they're often asked up to the Evanses' rambling colonial house for an impromptu taste-off as well.

"What I really need are some moretesters," Jewell says. "Every once in a while I'll invite everyone in and say, 'O.K., tonight we're trying corn-sticks, or whole-wheat biscuits, or bran muffins.' I need people who can really be objective, because Bob says anythign I cook tastes good." She rolls her eyes in a you-know-how-husbands-are gesture but then becomes thoughtful. "I don't think of myself as a very creative or artistic person, but if someone said, 'Create!' I'd go straight to the kitchen, because that's the place I feel I can do the most good. It comes from my childhood in North Carolina. My mother was a good cook; everything was made from scratch," she says.

She realizes, however, that scratchcooking went out of style with ice-houses and rug beaters. Ever resourceful, she offers several quick fixes. First, she emphasizes that her hearty 10-Grain Cereal can be prepared a day or two in advance and then warmed in the microwave. She also points out that her five varieties of pancake mix require only water. For would-be customers who balk at baking, the fledgling family business has diversified to include a deli bakery in Worthington, Ohio, and a larger outlet under con struction in Columbus, Ohio. Supervising this newest offshoot of his mother's mill is her oldest son, Stanley, who divides his time between baking and filling mail orders. Requests come in regularly from both coasts, and the product line is expanding as quickly as the customer ranks. Choices range from honey-raisin to sprouted-wheat bread and apple coffee cake to pizza rolls.

"We've been told by professionalsyou can't make money selling bread products, but we think we can," Stan says. "We think people will come here and buy our bread."

Jewell claims the proof is in themailbox.

"People write me from New York,Arizona, and Montana, asking for a case of cereal at a time," she says. "We actually have one customer in Pennsylvania who gives our products as wedding gifts! Of course, every once in a while I'll hear from somebody who has eaten our pancakes and thinks they're too wheaty. But I say that we're all different, and that person may have his taste buds geared to quick, plastic kinds of foods."

She isn't bothered by the seemingclash in food philosophies of her husband's former business and her current one. "Bob and I have been active in the food and farming business for more than 40 years, and we've always believed that learning more about quality and nutrition is the responsibility of everyone involved in the food industry. We've learned, too, that it is an ever-changing process. We think it's important to share our knowledge and to give the American public a choice to eat better, to be healthier," she explains.

But volume may be curbed somewhatby the quality standards the family demands. "Everything we do is painstaking," Robbin says. Jewell won't bend, though, and although this may slow business, it's also the reason business continues to grow.

Steve explains it in try-us-you'll-like-usterms: "Once we getcha, you've been got."
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Title Annotation:includes recipes; Bob Evans Farms Inc.
Author:Miller, Holly G.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1987
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